“We’re part of the story. Part of history.”
It’s that time of the series again where Team TARDIS meet up with a famous historical figure. Just like in the Assassin’s Creed series, it seems our protagonists can’t turn a corner without coming face-to-face with Winston Churchill, Hitler, Agatha Christie, Queen Victoria, and now Rosa Parks. Taking place in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, there is the worry that an ostensibly family show on Sunday prime time is not going to be able to tackle the heavy subject matter. But Rosa quickly dispels that worry and is a powerful and much-needed episode.
In the ninth (“Fourteenth!”) attempt to get home after the events of last week, the TARDIS isn’t playing ball and instead dumps the gang right into the deep south. Racial tensions are at breaking point and there’s a high reading of Artron energy. Being The Doctor, it’s her job to investigate. It soon becomes clear that the energy is surrounding none other than Rosa Parks, played by Vinette Robinson. Robinson has actually appeared in Doctor Who before. In ’42’ way back in 2007. But I only know this because someone else pointed this out, and would never have remembered myself because ’42’ might be one of the single most forgettable episode of Doctor Who. So I’m glad she’s had another go of it. Robinson’s Rosa Parks is tough – but not in the usual Doctor Who way. She sticks to her guns, she wants to be called “Ma’am”, and she has a quiet intelligence that feels very realistic. Martin Luther King Jr has an appearance but it’s Parks that steals the show.
It becomes evident very quickly that the show is not pulling any punches in its depiction of racism. Not soon after they leave the TARDIS Ryan is slapped for touching a white woman. There are racial slurs, a reference to Emmett Till, and even a threatened lynching. It’s stuff and doesn’t let up throughout the episode. Some parents might think it’s too harsh, but children need to know it, and some parents need to know it too. Everyone has some idea how bad the situation was in the south back then, but not everyone knows quite how bad it was, and less know the story of Rosa Parks. Doctor Who is the perfect vehicle to teach people something. She can go anywhere in time, why not learn something along the way? Personally I think everyone involved should be applauded for not holding back in this episode.
Of course, it can’t all be educational. There is a science fiction plot in there too – and it’s a corker. The gang all have make sure that Rosa makes her famous protest on the bus, despite the meddling of an intergalactic white supremacist. Cranzo is an ex-con with some pretty wacky views on other races. He is the perfect villain in the current climate, though it’s a little sad to think that hundreds or even thousands years in the future there might still be nutjobs like that running around. It all gets very tense and Back To The Future-y by the end, with the gang having to juggle plates to make sure everything goes to plan. The villain is a little one-note but then again so are most racist thugs. I don’t care if this member of the space-EDL gets a tragic back story, he’s an efficient and satisfying foil to the heroes. And of course, there’s always the chance he could return…
The gang get a lot more to do in this episode, each getting clearly defined roles and interactions. Bradley Walsh’s Graham is still the stand-out for me, and I’m still consistently shocked by how good he is! His relationship with Ryan is great too, and their friendly interactions are a pleasure to watch. His calling Ryan his grandson, despite knowing the reaction he’d get, is a touching moment. Yaz has still not got quite as much to do – though her conversation with Ryan behind the bins shouldn’t be ignored. It might not be subtle but it’s great to hear these sort of discussions coming from this show. It’s what science fiction should be. Also, looking at next week’s story, Yaz is about to get a lot more focus. And, of course, Jodie Whittaker continues to be phenomenal. There’s no doubt that she is The Doctor now.
Overall, this is a near-perfect episode for me. Some people didn’t love the end music but to me it was fine. Doctor Who needs to take a few risks if it’s going to continue, and adding that music gave it a more polished, up-to-date feel. And it was no more heavy-handed than half of the music by Murray Gold. Rosa makes me wish there were more episodes like this that dealt with heavy subjects in a way that might teach people a thing or two. Maybe in this new updated Who, there just might be.
Reviewed by Jack